Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Nuclear War by accident averted in October 1979

Following on from this post about a nuclear war near-miss in 1979, I have at last downloaded previously secret documents (released last year) from the National Archive.

On Friday 9th October at 1608 hours the US alarm indicators in the operations centres of the MOD, Ballistic Missil Early Warning System (BMEWS) Fylingdales, HQ RAF Strike Command and C in C Fleet Northwood registered an advanced alert state. There was no indication from the Fylingdales radars of any threat to the UK, and indeed within seconds the information" was shown to be suspect. 

Within a minute of receipt of the original US notification the North American Air Defence (NORAD) Command had indicated that the warning was a false alarm.

The reason for the error was explained in a US Department of Defense statement issued on 9th November, as follows.

"At 1050 am (Eastern Seaboard Time) on 9th November 1979 a test tape was loaded on the North American Air Defence (NORAD) command computer as part of a computer test. The tape simulated a missile attack against North America. Through possible mechanical malfunction the tape was transmitted to a number of other commands and agencies. The error was corrected
within six minutes.

A simulated attack appeared on some elements of the system, was unconfirmed by others, interceptor jets were scrambled then recalled. So, no harm done.

This outcome could have been very different if it had occurred at a time of heightened political tension. Say there was a political argument, say about Russia's intervention on a state on its border. Tensions running high, posturing was in progress, and then we get a re-run of November 1979, through accident, psychosis or malice. In that case, the diagnosis of an error might not be made so swiftly. A nuclear retaliation could be ordered, leading to a general nuclear war, with all 50,000 nuclear weapons from both sides deployed.

This piece of history shows the danger and illogicality of the nuclear deterrence fantasy. No human system is infallible. It just needs the wrong accident to happen at the right political time for the Dr Strangeloves of this world to unleash Armageddon.

The simple fact is that the nuclear weapons posture is in defiance of Sod's Law, Murphy's Law, and is illogical.

It is very clear indeed that humanity should destroy its nuclear weapons completely. This is physically possible. They can be dismantled. It is politically possible: the vast majority of states in the world are against nuclear weapons. Only the tiny club of nuclear weapons states want to continue.

The fact that this story only just broke the surface of media ignoral last year is an indication of how deeply our collective heads are buried in the radioactive sand.

No comments: